For kd lang's return to London, it's not the restrained tones of her four-piece band and a 38-strong string section from the London Philharmonic Orchestra that heralds her arrival on stage, but wolf whistling. Lots of it.
Even when lang comes on, barefoot and in a Zen-inspired dress coat and skirt (it's all that hanging out with Leonard Cohen), it doesn't stop. This is the musician of whom Madonna once said "Elvis is alive, and she's beautiful," and at Hammersmith, one has the feeling that both she and Elvis would have been thrilled by the welcome accorded to lang.
It has been four years since the Canadian singer last toured the UK - the Kathy Dawn bit was dropped years ago in favour of an e e cummings approach to her name - and since then there have been improvements in an act that was always pretty near flawless. These lie mostly in her set. In 2000, lang was touring Invincible Summer, a good-enough studio album, but sufficiently lightweight to expose what most people already knew: that despite lang's capacity to transmogrify just about any source material, songwriting is not her major talent. Now, with Hymns of the 49th Parallel, a songbook of titles provided by compatriots such as Cohen, Jane Siberry and Neil Young, lang has material that is worthy of her voice - one of the great voices to emerge in the last 20 years. Hers is a powerful, wide-ranging alto, with a palette that calls for comparisons outside of her genre. To call her the Kathleen Ferrier of popular music wouldn't be wide of the mark. And, similarly, her strength lies in an extraordinary interpretative ability.
Even so, the challenge of putting something new into songs as agonisingly complex as Cohen's "Hallelujah" is formidable, but she pulls it off. The recording is fine, but on stage, with her musicians a discrete distance away from her voice, it's the highlight of her London show. For lang, the word disintegrates from a shout of praise to the pain of the "broken hallelujah" that Cohen implies but never describes. The voice swoops downwards, maintains its force and timbre and then ascends. There's nothing histrionic in lang's delivery: the effect is little short of showstopping.
Interestingly, lang is also pulling in a new audience. One that's wider in its age range and sex. There's plenty of material to please the die-hard fans - old favourites like "Constant Craving" and Roy Orbison's "Crying" are greeted like old friends - but, the heart of the concert is based around the Canadian songs. And she's funny with it. "I'm very proud to be Canadian right now," she deadpans before going into Young's "The Valley". "Because if things get any worse down there in the US, there's going to be a big immigration."
In fact, it's easy to forget how funny lang can be. She's a graceful mover, but she delights in sending herself up. She rumba's around the stage, executes flat-footed jumps and, then to confound everything, completes the sequence with a perfectly timed dip - one that would have pleased Elvis himself - to catch a deliberately dropped microphone stand. There are plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to her off-stage life. Placing a smooch of a smacker on the lips of her bass player, the impressively bearded David Piltch, lang pulls away, rubbing her cheek. "That's why," she explains.
Even "Miss Chatelaine", the exuberantly camp song from 1992's breakthrough album, Ingénue, gets a subtle rewrite - "They call me Mr Chatelaine.
Whether or not lang's been spending lonely tour nights with Judith Butler propped on her breast, she's not saying, but this gleeful nod towards the gender theorists elicits squeals of delight. And that's just the men in the house.
It's nicely done. There was a brief period when all the fluff about lang's sexuality seemed more important than her music, and while she's to be applauded for having the guts to come out, a talent for lesbianism alone is no reason for fame. In musical terms, lang's ability to communicate transcends, rather than reinforces, differences.
She's different in one way, however. Some heart-throbs get knickers thrown at them: lang gets a large toy beaver. Lang's good at the impromptu patter, but even she looks momentarily startled by this hurtling symbol - not only of her native land but so much more. As a stunt, it upstages even the "kd! come to Spain!" banner draped along the theatre's balcony like wistful bunting. "I appreciate the beaver," she says on sauntering back out for her last encore. It's fair to say that there's not a dry seat left in the house.
kd lang: Waterfront Hall, Belfast (0870 243 4455), tonight; Olympia, Dublin (0818 719 330), Monday
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